This is an updated version of a story by Richard Sullins which appeared in the August 2021 printed edition of The Rant Monthly. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org
It seemed so close.
The Splash Pad at Kiwanis Park was seeing its largest crowds as the Fourth of July weekend brought the heat of summer, and the sounds made by children who had been kept away for too long seemed like music to our ears.
Churches were holding regular services again and many congregations had resumed their singing. Stores had taken down signs that reminded us that masks were required in order to conduct our business inside. And the pure joy of greeting our friends and neighbors had returned.
And now, suddenly, here in Lee County and around the world, that freedom to breathe again that it seemed vaccines had given us is now being abruptly called back into question.
COVID may have been leaving in one form, but with most children returning to school this month, a newer and more ferocious variant of the virus is threatening to upend life all over again. It’s called the Delta variant, a more highly contagious form of the illness that can spread up to 1,000 times easier than the original version.
As more and more people were inoculated with the vaccines that scientists had developed in record time, we allowed ourselves to think that the worst of COVID was behind us and that things were returning to the normal we had known a scant two summers ago.
Since the start of the pandemic in early 2020, Lee County had struggled with a positivity rate for testing that stubbornly refused to drop below 5 percent. By mid-June, it fell to just over 3 percent. Things finally seemed headed in the right direction.
The percentage of persons testing positive for COVID within the county jumped to 12.7 percent by July 18, reaching its highest level in four months. The number of cases per 100,000 persons during the previous two weeks was 46.9 within the county on June 21. Just over five weeks later, on July 29, the number of cases had reached 288, an eye-popping increase of 514 percent in just 38 days. And that number of cases is higher for Lee than it is for any of the three counties that surround it geographically.
The total number of cases reported within the county since the outbreak began in early 2020 is now 6,529 (as of August 4), with 83 deaths attributed to the virus. While the number of females contracting the illness has remained relatively steady, the number of males diagnosed in the county with COVID has more than doubled during the last week of July.
The COVID Dashboard maintained by the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services also reports an ongoing outbreak of the virus at the Sanford Health and Rehabilitation Center on Farrell Road. Since the outbreak began there, 123 cases have been reported at the facility, including 90 cases and 16 deaths among its residents. An “ongoing outbreak” is defined by the state as two or more tests identified as being positive through either the molecular or antigen test result. An outbreak is considered over if there is no evidence of continued transmission within the facility, measured as 28 days after the latest date of onset in a symptomatic person or the first date of specimen collection from the most recent asymptomatic person, whichever is later.
Where are these increases coming from?
Lee County Health Department Director Heath Cain says that approximately 80 percent of the cases reported within the past few weeks are among individuals who are unvaccinated, a figure that mirrors trends being observed nationally. Cain also reports that between 18 to 20 percent of the positive cases are people who are fully vaccinated.
Across the state, DHHS reports that 61 percent of the population who are at least 12 years old have received at least one dose of the vaccine. Lee County’s numbers are far less, with 28,582 persons – or just 46 percent of those available – having received at least one dose.
Swain County, situated in the Smoky Mountains along the Tennessee border, had the lowest percentage in the state, with 37 percent of its eligible residents having received at least one dose of the vaccine. The highest in the state is Orange County, which reports 78 percent of eligible residents have gotten at least one dose.
Vaccinations have been available in the county since December of 2020, first at clinics set up by the Health Department at the Dennis A. Wicker Civic Center and later at some local businesses and worksites. As spring arrived, local pharmacies began offering the vaccines at their locations. During the first week of April, just under 700,000 North Carolinians got vaccinated. By the last week of July, that number dropped to just 36,000 for the week.
State officials announced “Summer Cash Drawings” as an incentive for people to get vaccinated, with awards that include a million dollar lottery drawing and a $125,000 college scholarship among people who have been vaccinated. But the program has hardly moved the needle for getting people to roll up their sleeves.
Although numbers are continuing to change in COVID’s impact on Lee and surrounding counties, the reasons many give for not getting the vaccine haven’t. Some continue to play a waiting game to see whether there are any unforeseen side effects. Others cite a general mistrust of anything “the government” asks citizens to do, and still others believe the pandemic is no more than the latest political argument designed to further divide us. Science tells us the threat to our health, and those of our friends and family is real, but we remain a nation divided around science and facts.
Meanwhile, the window of opportunity could be starting to close for those who haven’t made up their minds about getting vaccinated. Cain says that the Health Department “continues to provide vaccination clinics Thursdays and Fridays from 2 to 4:30 p.m. and we will do these through the month of August. Keep in mind plans must be modified based on demand. Anyone interested in being vaccinated can call (919) 842-5744 and they will be registered and given a date and time to come to our vaccination clinics, or they can pre-register online and someone will call them back. Anyone interested in setting up a vaccine clinic at their business can call the number above as well.”
Lee County Schools Superintendent Dr. Andy Bryan believes Lee County Schools are as prepared for whatever the fall may bring as students return to close quarters in the classroom. He says the key is for the system to maintain the kind of flexibility that allowed this past year to be completed successfully. As outbreaks occur from place to place and under differing circumstances, Bryan says it is the lessons learned last year, along with the determination and resourcefulness of faculty and staff, that make him confident that the system will be able to handle whatever happens this year. The Lee County Board of Education voted this week to require masks for staff and students when the academic year begins later this month.
Meanwhile, public officials continue to urge those in Lee County who are eligible to get the as soon as possible. Sanford Mayor Chet Mann closed the July 20 meeting of the Sanford City Council by encouraging the community to get vaccinated.
It’s simple, it’s easy, it’s free, and it’s plentiful. If you want to end this pandemic, get vaccinated. If you want to stay healthy, get vaccinated,” he said. “But if you don’t get vaccinated, the odds of you getting sick from the virus are much higher, the chances of you being hospitalized are far greater, and the chance that you will pass it on to those you love and others you care about are much higher. Let me urge you. If you haven’t already done it, make a plan for you and your loved ones to stay healthy.”